5 Tips for Fighting Compassion Fatigue
As a veterinarian, you’re a helper with a big heart. You got into the profession because you love animals, and you want to do everything in your power to ensure they are healthy and happy.
You experience a lot of wins… a cat with liver disease who finally starts eating on its own… an injured dog who receives a life-saving blood transfusion… a thankful client who brings the team cookies.
But for every win, there are situations of trauma, illness, death, and even abuse and neglect. You face scared, angry, and traumatized people, sometimes even in the absence of an emergency, every single day.
It’s a tough gig, and if you’re not mindful of the effects it’s having on you, you could develop a condition known as compassion fatigue.
What Is Compassion Fatigue?
Compassion fatigue is defined as the combination of emotional, physical, psychological, and spiritual exhaustion and depletion that can result when we are repeatedly exposed to another’s pain and suffering.
Symptoms of compassion fatigue may include:
- Loss of desire to work
- Inability to find joy in activities you previously enjoyed
- Sadness and apathy
- Bottled-up emotions
- Lack of self-care, including poor hygiene and a drop-off in your appearance
- Feeling mentally and physically tired
- Difficulty concentrating
- Chronic physical ailments
- Substance abuse or other compulsive behaviors such as overeating or gambling
You may also engage in unhealthy self-talk, telling yourself things like:
- If I don’t do it, no one’s going to do it.
- No one cares as much as I do.
- No one else can do it the right way.
- I’m the only one who can take care of this.
- If I don’t resolve every problem, I’ve failed.
- I don’t want to burden others by taking time to care for myself.
- I can’t believe they’re taking time off; clearly, they don’t care as much as I do.
Unfortunately, compassion fatigue is a frequent consequence of working in a helping profession like veterinary medicine. But thankfully, there are ways to combat it. Keep reading for five tips.
Tip 1: Assess Your Well-being
Before doing anything else, it’s important to get a baseline of your current health. The Professional Quality of Life (ProQOL) assessment is a helpful tool that measures your professional quality of life.
Professional quality of life refers to how you feel in relation to your work as a helper. As a veterinarian, you help animals and their owners daily. Both the positive and negative aspects of helping others influences your professional quality of life.
This assessment measures compassion satisfaction (the positive) as well as compassion fatigue (the negative) to help you reflect on yourself and your environment. You can then identify areas to better focus your self-care.
Tip 2: Discuss and Debrief as a Group
According to psychotherapist and compassion fatigue specialist Elizabeth Strand, PhD, people who work for organizations where they can discuss their moral dilemmas and benefit from other social support seem to have better outcomes when it comes to compassion fatigue.
Dr. Strand explains, “Group time to discuss and debrief is important because it allows integration of implicit memories—such as some traumatic images that keep coming into one’s mind. When a group of people who have such memories talk about them together openly, the memory moves from the implicit, lower parts of the brain to the cortical part of the brain to become explicit. Once that happens, a person can make sense of it.”
Tip 3: Try Expressive Writing
Discussing your day with a group isn’t always feasible. For those times, expressive writing can be beneficial. Dr. Strand recommends spending 15 to 20 minutes writing about the things that stressed you out that day. As with group discussions, this activity can move things from implicit to explicit memory.
It’s also helpful to journal at the start of your workday. Work your way through the following questions to remind yourself why you chose this profession and acknowledge the positive aspects of the job:
- Why am I doing this work?
- What drew me to veterinary medicine?
- What did and do I want to achieve as a veterinarian?
- Am I in touch with the positive aspects of my work?
- What keeps me going and sustains me both personally and professionally, given the challenges of veterinary medicine?
- Do I celebrate the wins for more than 30 seconds?
- Can I think of a situation where I know I’ve made a difference?
- Are there any specific patients or clients who have profoundly touched me in a positive way?
- If I had to do it all over again, would I make different choices?
- Do I still love this work?
Tip 4: Celebrate the Wins
While it’s imperative to discuss and process the negative aspects of your job, it’s equally important to acknowledge the positive ones.
This practice can be difficult, because as human beings, we instinctively focus on the negative. According to psychologist Jonathan Haidt, “Over and over, the mind reacts to bad things more quickly, strongly, and persistently than to equivalent good things.” This tendency is referred to as negativity bias.
We can overcome our negativity bias, but it takes intentional effort. According to experts, it takes five positive thoughts to offset one negative thought. So the next time you find yourself spiraling on the negative, try thinking of five good things you experienced or accomplished that day to counteract it.
You can also set aside some time each day to practice the art of savoring: allowing joy, celebration, and gratitude to linger. The more you can savor your wins, the better you’ll feel.
Tip 5: Prioritize Your Physical Health
Veterinarians are often so busy taking care of others that they fail to take care of themselves. They push their bodies to the limit by staying up late and getting up early, grabbing fast food as they rush to and from work, and failing to find time to exercise. Over time, this lifestyle will wear you down.
It can seem impossible at times, but getting at least 7-9 hours of sleep on average per night is one of the best things you can do for your physical health. According to sleep medicine specialist, Sarah Zallek, MD, anything less than 6 hours of sleep on a regular basis will cause impaired motor and cognitive performance. It isn’t safe for you or your patients.
Eating a well-balanced diet ensures you stay energized and healthy throughout your workday. Registered dietitian Sarah Koszyk, MA, explains, “We need the proper fuel for both our brains and our bodies, especially when we are running around or experiencing higher levels of stress.”
Finally, it’s important to get at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or 75 minutes per week of vigorous aerobic activity, or an equivalent combination. Doing so will help improve your mood, boost your energy, promote better sleep, and the list goes on.
You’re Not Alone
As a professional in the helping industry, you’re at a greater risk for developing compassion fatigue. It’s important to acknowledge and monitor your emotional well-being and find ways to cope. Try some of the strategies laid out in this article and always remember this: You are not alone.